Metrical Poetry vs. Whatever It’s Called Currently

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Kathryn Jacobs

Metrical Poetry vs. Whatever It’s Called Currently



    In 2012, at a conference sponsored by the Society for Paragone Studies and devoted entirely to “Rivalry in the Arts,” I stood before a multitude of artists and scholars and thought wistfully how nice it would be if I could simply announce that visual artists might fight among themselves, but among poets “all was well.” In fact, however, I had not come to make any such announcement; quite the contrary. For if there is one thing poets agree upon today (and there cannot be many) it is that poets today are divided into camps with such widely divergent goals and aesthetics that the United States Congress is more likely to find grounds for compromise than we are.
         This comment may sound flippant or extreme. Yet it is not based on anecdotal evidence, exaggeration or sour grapes; far from it. It is not even a remnant of past disputes, though the optimism of old combatants may sometimes cast it as such. On the contrary, one has only to listen to what poets of all persuasions say about the State of Poetry Today (frequently in passing) to see how wide the gulf between various camps really is, and how far we are from closing it. That formalists have made progress of a sort is clear, if you look at the number of journals devoted to metrical and/or rhymed poetry today. In the last ten years alone, far more journals than ever before give at least lip service to the goal of openness—that is, to accepting poets of all “schools” or “persuasions.” If, however, you are pained by the aesthetic gap between metrical poets and what is variously called “Free” or “Experimental” or “Innovative” or “Open” poetry, and measure progress by the steps taken to close it, then that state of poetry today is dire indeed.
         Dana Gioia is one of the Optimists: he uses the word “war,” but in the past tense only. As a former chairman of the NEA and (in his own words) a “ringleader of the New Formalists,” Gioia describes the “Poetry Wars,” of the early 1980s through the 1990s as hard on formalists. According to Gioia (and I believe him) “it was impossible to publish a formal or narrative poem in most magazines” in the 1970s. Gioia however wishes to emphasize the bygone nature of all these divisions, and the pain that all these wars cost him. He himself, he says, never saw the movement as a rejection of modernism. “Why throw away the greatest period of American poetry?”1
         All this sounds promising, as if two sides of a once-entrenched opposition were finally learning to see eye to eye. But Gioia’s open-mindedness is the exception rather than the rule. As recently as 2006, for instance, J.F. Quackenbush began his essay on “The Form Question” by mocking “conservatives on the poetry scene . . . who bemoan the loss of ‘form’ in poetry and decry the current tendency towards open form composition.” Rebutting what he labels this “misguided notion,” Quackenbush declares that “American poetry since its maturity has largely been a bastion of free verse. . . . Excepting Poe, all of the important poets of North America have worked largely with free verse of one method or another. On this fact I am grounding my axiom that American Verse is Free Verse. For an American poet, strict adherence to a form is an aberration of the national poetry.”2
         Indeed, a search for critical commentary on poetic factions today makes one thing clear: no matter how open-minded the critic or journal, the middle ground is an uncomfortable place to live if you are a poet in America, one that requires numerous carefully worded apologies and explanations. And this is particularly apparent in Catherine Wagner’s splendid essay, “The Politics of Meter.” Wagner is (as she hastens to reassure us) a writer and reader firmly ensconced in the “experimental” camp. By making this clear in the opening lines of her essay, she establishes credibility. After all, she is not a self-interested traditionalist. If people like her are concerned about the dearth of traditional poetry in “mainstream magazines,” it is just possible that the traditionalists have a point.
         No one could describe the segregation of modern poetry more carefully—more meticulously—than Wagner.

        You can pick up any magazine that sets out to publish “experimental” or “innovative” poetry—the rags I like to read—and you might scan until your eyes bleed before you find anyone using regular meter. There’s not much in more mainstream magazines, either. Regular meter, and other kinds of traditional patterned language, have been scoff-worthy for decades for a broad array of poets across the mainstream and avant-garde, for almost everybody except those associated with the New Formalist movement and mavericks like Kenward Elmslie. . . .
             For decades, traditional patterns have been distrusted by, for instance, the “organic form”/“projective verse” avant-garde, as well as by writers working with nontraditional word patterns—the Language poets, Jackson Mac Low, Susan Howe, and others. The distrust of verse is widespread. Even my dad tells me he knows that poetry shouldn’t rhyme or be in regular meter anymore. And poets of all stripes still get suddenly bored or nervous when they detect traditional forms. Not very many years ago, some members of the Buffalo Poetics listserv were provoked to anger when Annie Finch joined the list to ask for input on the anthology of forms she was putting together. And after a reading I gave recently in England, a poet (a committed political activist and self-declared member of the avant-garde) congratulated me on my “anti-prosody.” She was certain that what she’d heard meant I was working in ironic opposition to traditional meter. Not so.”

    As you can see, Wagner begins by gently exploring the assumptions behind the work that she and her associates have given their lives to. Only when she has thoroughly uncovered the degree to which formal poetry is “Othered” and absent in her world, does she at length come to what is, at least for the intended audience, the climactic discovery, “could it be that traditional forms aren’t in themselves coercive and closed?”4
         I could recount more examples, but the point is clear; poets of all persuasions agree that mainstream American poetry is fundamentally different in its aesthetic from that which preceded it. The question remains then, what if anything can be done about it, and what is keeping the parties from overcoming this “schizophrenic” divide, so long after what Gioia calls “the poetry wars” of the 1980s and 1990s?
         One could argue of course that differences that have been entrenched for decades are not easily overcome. History, institutional culture, MFA programs, and individual careers have been built on the status quo. This, plus the progress we have made in the “separate but equal” world of American poetry today, makes it perfectly plausible to argue that “all we need is time.” This is not, however, what I see happening around me. And it is not likely to change until poets face the fundamental questions that divide us: what is poetry, and how do we define it?
         If there is one question poets particularly hate to answer, this is it. The vexed “definition problem” comes up fairly frequently in conferences, of course. Someone brings up the difficulty of defining poetry, and the people in the audience sigh and squirm. Almost always, the speaker gives a nuanced and sophisticated analysis of the problems inherent in any attempt to define the term—and then leaves it there, to universal relief. And they are right to do so, because any definition proposed can only make explicit what we are (as a rule) too polite to say: that there is no definition that can both exclude other forms (prose, for instance) and still embrace all the current subtypes of “poetry.” Poetry today, if it is to be inclusive, is not so much a genre as another negative: it is not prose, not drama, not “nonfiction,” not “creative nonfiction”—in short, it is not so much what poetry is as what it isn’t; the operative word is the all-important not.
         This is hardly the way to win readers. When readers pick up a newspaper or a fantasy novel, they have well-defined expectations. And while personal preference may play a large role in genre selection, the expectations themselves are for the most part inherent in the genre and widely known. For instance, novels are generally expected to tell stories, Joyce notwithstanding. Fantasy and science-fiction novels introduce a new world or culture in the process. Magic is allowed in fantasy, but once the author has introduced the rules for magic in this particular world, he is expected to follow them consistently. Some authors emphasize plot, others emphasize characterization or “world building,” and individual readers will be drawn to this or that author. As a general rule, though, readers of fantasy know what it is reasonable to expect from a work of fantasy, whether the author has met expectations, and why or why not.
         Not so the reader of poetry, however—and the results are painfully apparent in workshopping sessions devoted to that genre. Unlike fantasy writers, randomly collected poets have little if any common expectations of their genre, and as a result, they rarely offer much in the way of criticism or suggestion to their fellows. Little can be judged as done badly because no one is quite sure what the poet is attempting; no one needs to work on “technique” because no one agrees on what techniques should be employed. To make matters worse, many poets draw material from their personal life, so criticism seems rude. As the workshoppers get to know each other (especially, if they meet regularly over time) participants may become sufficiently aware of a particular poet’s interests to venture suggestions, but even then, expectations are personal rather than inherent. References to a poem’s technique, if they are complimentary, cause immediate tension and anxious silence, for technique, like meter and rhyme, has been “politicized.” All too often, in fact, poetry workshops do not focus on “craft” at all, but serve more as a “mutual support network,” with poems as a form of self-expression and “therapy.” Only if poets are all from one “school,” or participants agree to focus on particular forms or literary tools, do those present have a rubric for comparison.
         The trend toward poetry as therapy, by the way, has not gone unnoticed by bona fide therapists; there is now a “National Association of Poetry Therapy” with regular conferences, a journal of Poetry Therapy, and an “Institute of Poetic Medicine.” None of these are run by poets.
         Given the lack of any commonly accepted definition, even by its proponents, you might expect that the labels poets use to describe themselves would morph depending on who is speaking—and indeed, this is exactly what you do find. The old term for non-metrical poets, for instance, was “free verse.” But “free verse” is an increasingly dated term now. Quackenbush uses it, but he is somewhat unusual in this regard; nowadays the use of the term “free verse” simply means “non-metrical poetry when it is being spoken of by formalists.”
         Currently the more common terms, if one judges by submission guidelines published online and in volumes like Poetry Today, are “Experimental” or “Innovative.” But even these terms are rarely defined except as the other side of the continuum that contains rhymed and metrical verse. Logically, the existence of “experimental” poetry should imply some sort of contrary: a poetry that is safe, traditional—in short, not experimental. And since formalists are still (despite progress) a distinct minority (both in the country as a whole, and the world of MFA-granting institutions) we can hardly serve that purpose. After all, the so-called “American Tradition” is now ninety years old, as measured from the publication of “The Waste Land.” If all of those poems written in that tradition qualify as “innovative,” then that is one suspiciously safe and hoary-headed innovation.
         And in some ways, that is just as well for the formalist movement. Because if after all that time—including a full half-century of institutional dominance—the opposition still feels impelled to sell itself as “new,” then it is they, not we, who have the problem. After all, the twentieth century was a very comfortable place for those who write without rules, and it is easy for the comfortable to become complacent. For almost a hundred years now, it is the formalists—out of favor, and yet somehow rebelled against despite that—who have been continually challenged to examine their assumptions, question their aesthetics, and redefine themselves. Those years (painful though they may have been) have borne fruit. For today formalism is no longer a “conservative” moment; on the contrary. Today it is the formalists who, writing in the language as it is currently spoken and listening to the rhythms inherent in the language we love, make poetry new.
         Take for instance the splendid, almost Donne-like beginning of Rhina Espaillat’s “Salve Regina,” with its combination of regret (because there are no angels) and utter certainty (then how does she know so much about them?):

        If there were angels, they would sound this way,
        climbing by half-tones, smoke of sacrifice
        soaring by imperceptible degrees, like day5—

    From the first line, the metrics of this sonnet are both deceptively simple, and yet nuanced. Where does the accent go on the first half-line, for instance; on the subjunctive, contrary-to-fact were (a wistful violation of iambs)? On the first syllable, book-end rhythm lingering on the wishful-thinking “if”? Or iambically, letting the fatalism of that most basic rhythm control its implicit yearning? You can read it all three ways, and each way works. Then there is the structure of the first two lines—really, four perfectly balanced half-lines pivoting on the caesura in illustration of the “climbing by half-tones” of her very human angels. So by the time you hit the third line (soaring emphatically in quick little syllables), it takes a moment to realize that the line does not end (as good pentameter would) after the comma, but continues into the triumphant,“LIKE DAY”—a whole extra, thoroughly earned foot. In short, Espaillat’s poem plays off the established form: teasing, dancing. Overtly traditional at first sight, this is a poet who never forgets that, ultimately, the best poems are a juxtaposition of tensions.
         Always there is the necessity of compromise: the battle between the demands of prose and poetry, idiom and form. Ultimately each generation refashions that compromise. For too long, poets today have given up the effort—and gone slack because of it. Formalists (for good or ill) have not had that luxury. Whether we will in the future remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, take advantage of that challenge. Revel in it—enjoy it.


    1.          Dana Gioia, “It’s better to be noticed than ignored,” World Literature Today, September, 2008, reprinted in Stanford University’s The Book Haven 2011.
    2.          J.F. Quackenbush, “The Form Question,” in Wet Asphalt, June 22, 2006.
    3.          Catherine Wagner, “The Politics of Meter: On Traditional Forms.” Poets.Org: From the Academy of American Poets.
    4.          Rhina Espaillat, “Salve Regina” from Landscapes with Women, Singular Speech Press, 1999. Reprinted by The Poem Tree